From Seed to Store

Dec 16, 2021
Story by Allison Farley
Photos by Hannah Nave Lewis


As you drive through the tiny Fentress County hamlet of Pall Mall in the fall, it is hard to miss the Wolf River Valley Growers’ 56 greenhouses overflowing with bright red, pink, and white poinsettias.
That’s just the kind of free marketing that the owners like. In the early 80’s, the families of Bob and Margaret Pile, Mike and Connie Pile, and Linda and Bob Washburn, decided to try the greenhouse business as a way to continue family farming.
Connie and her husband, Mike, long-time members of Fentress Farmers Co-op, started the business in 1982 with one greenhouse to grow bedding plants and poinsettias. The greenhouse proved to be a good business plan, so the other partners decided to move back and work on expansion.
Since moving home in 1984 to help make the business flourish, they haven’t missed a beat. The business now grows more than two million plants a year from seeds and cuttings, and supplies stores all over Middle Tennessee.
“We produce more than 200 varieties of annuals and perennials, 100 kinds of vegetable transplants, 20 different herbs in the spring, and 85 varieties of colorful mums in the fall,” says Bob. “These are distributed to various retailers, garden centers, and around 50 wholesale customers along with hundreds of fundraisers”.
For a large portion of their history as a company, Wolf River sold their plants to chain stores like Lays, Hecks, and even Walmart Supercenter locations. But as time has passed, they have moved away from working with chain stores.
 “As our business grew, we knew we wanted to vertically integrate,” says Bob. “But also, we have always enjoyed partnering with more hometown stores rather than large commercial businesses.” In addition to partnering with other local retailers like Rutherford Farmers Co-op, Wolf River has also been running its own garden center in Lenoir City for the last 20 years managed by their sister, Lisa, and her husband, Rodney Grugin. The company also owns retail locations in Lascassas, Murfreesboro, and Lebanon — all of which are run by close family members — called Valley Growers and Valley Growers Too.
Even with their large selection of plants, Wolf River is well known for its poinsettias. Each year, the company grows more than 20,000 poinsettias in three different pot sizes and over 20 different color varieties, such as classic red, pink, white, marble, red glitter, and many other shades of red and pink. Some 80 to 90 percent of these are destined to be used for fundraisers.
“Thanks to the poinsettias, we are able to help partner with churches, schools, sports teams, and other organizations,” says Linda. “On any given year, our poinsettias will be a part of 60 to 70 different fundraisers across the state.”
The farm also supplies plants for iconic Christmas décor like Knoxville’s Fantasy of Trees. “Wolf River Valley has become a wellknown family business in our area,” says Fentress Farmers Co-op Manager, Ralph Smith. “They have been a great asset for the community, and I feel lucky to have had Mike Pile on our Co-op board of directors many times.”
After 40 years of building such a successful retail and wholesale business, Linda says it feels great to have something to pass on.
“I think that our children have really benefited by growing up in this environment,” says Linda. “They all have good work habits. I believe they’ve learned that if you work hard, you can not only make money, but also bring happiness to others.”
Connie’s son, Steven Pile, Linda’s son-inlaw, Tony Stover, and Lisa’s son, Stuart Grugin, have all taken on roles in the family business, and Bob’s daughter, Susie Tramel, runs the two garden center locations in Murfreesboro.
“Everything has turned out better than we could’ve imagined,” says Susie. “I think having quality products and expanding our markets over time has allowed us to grow and take our business to the next level.”
For more information about Wolf River Valley Growers, visit www.wolfriver.net.
 
Posted: Dec 16, 2021

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